Hammer Head

Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter

Nina MacLaughlin


 Hammer Head book cover

We are Here:  Done!

Spoilers?     No


The lynch-pin of my morning routine (and my daily sanity) involves spending at least a half an hour in my trusty reading chair with a cup of coffee in one hand and an engrossing book in the other. Hammer Head might just be the book most perfectly-suited for this ritual that I have ever had the pleasure to come across.

Warm, mundane, and inviting, I was hooked by page 25. Probably sooner. Tell me more about your personal journey from clicking to building, I thought. Show me more about gutting kitchens and building window-frames and getting rid of trash heaps and the awesome people who do that work. Sip, sigh, read, repeat.

Though some of the more descriptive prose was a little tedious, not seeming to fit the subject matter and what I thought (ought) to be the overarching tone of the book, I loved reading about how this journalist became a carpenter enough to skip over most of those passages in favor of finding the facts. Some of her sentences are that long, too.

The story is straightforward enough: soul-searching journalist with a case of academic nostalgia stuck in a bait-and-click social media editorial position strikes out in search of more meaningful work and finds it in manual labor. MacLaughlin does not lose her love for the intellectual on this journey, however. She simply makes room for the more concrete. Take together, they make something that fits as though handcrafted by a master joiner.

MacLaughlin and her story are so approachable, the other people in this book so likable, that I looked forward to spending time with them each morning. It was a sorry day when there were no more pages left to turn.


Reading this made me want to (learn to) do more manual labor. Or at least know how to fix things when they break. The Division of Labor in Society is a bitch, Durkheim.

The theme of change runs thick through the pages. Transition, death, rebirth. Applied to things material and ephemeral. People, relationships, careers, trees, insulation–all are governed by their mutability. This matters to the book because its author is seeking a more meaningful life, and the activities and people who will make it so. The driving force is the knowledge that life is finite. Only so much time exists within which to create meaning.

Perhaps the most viscerally evocative similes I have ever come across: “…used a blade to carve through the shag and base of the carpet, like skinning a Muppet” (135).

By reading MacLaughlin’s reflections about her relationship with her father, I gained further insight into why it was so difficult to connect with people in D.C. Turns out the difference between east coast folks and west coast folks is a cultural one. Shocking.

Why is this book better than people?

People often make me question my life choices in a negative way (as in, Why am I spending so much time with these people?). This book made me question my life choices in a positive way (as in, I could move to the eastern seaboard and get a part-time job doing manual labor so as to leave ample time for intellectual pursuits in the dead of winter.) Also I would wear a pea coat more often.



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